Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Prisoner - "A, B, and C"

Welcome to my viewing diary for The Prisoner. Every Wednesday I will review another episode. This is my first watch-through of the 1967 British cult TV show so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes. But I will be watching the series in this order so if you are watching along with me, keep that in mind.

"A, B, and C" is full of surprises and new directions. This in itself is - somewhat paradoxically - unsurprising, because I haven't encountered any "filler" episodes yet (and if I did, they were early enough in the order not to strike me as such). With every entry, The Prisoner seems to find a new way to twist its premise and discover new alcoves and corridors within its terrain, even as it uses elements introduced in other episodes. "The Chimes of Big Ben" cleverly allowed Number Six outside of the Village - to a point. "The Schizoid Man" forced Six to wrestle with his own identity, as the authorities manipulated his reality. "The General" used technology to dominate Six (and other Villagers), until his own ingenuity destroyed the power of the machine. "A, B, and C" incorporates all of these approaches, while also utilizing the "tell us why you defected" obsession of "Big Ben" and actually continuing with the same Number Two for the first time (Colin Gordon, who also appeared in last week's entry, "The General"). One twist is that Six isn't really outside of the Village, but simply experiencing computerized hallucinations in which Number Two and Number Fourteen (Sheila Allen) use avatars to prove that Two betrayed the Agency before resigning (or was planning to betray them afterwards?). Another twist is that Six is able to achieve his most dramatic, table-turning victory yet perhaps because escape is never even his goal, but also because Two is under such intense pressure to discover Six's secrets.

Once again we are informed that the crucial question is why Number Six resigned. Or rather, assuming that his resignation was a form of betrayal, the questions are what information he conveyed and who he gave it to? In "The Chimes of Big Ben," it was strongly implied that Number Two and the other Village authorities were part of some foreign or otherwise subversive network attempting to undercut a British spy agency. But "A, B, and C" leads more toward the opposite conclusion, with Two assuming Six himself is the traitor. To suss out the information, Two and Fourteen drug Six before hooking him up to a machine that manufactures and controls his dream state (which is shown on a big screen in their facility, like a movie). Using the form of a fairy tale or fable, on three successive nights Two attempts to ferret the information from a dreaming Six using figures dubbed "A" - a defector Six had known in the past, who assumes Six wants to sell him information, "B" - a female spy he knew and liked, who claims she is under threat of death unless he gives her captors information, and "C" - the hostess of the swank party he attends in all these dreams, who will lead him to another mysterious figure. By that third night, Six has figured out what is going on and so as Two and Fourteen watch he unmasks this fourth figure as Two himself. He then - inside the dream! (this is an episode of many layers) - dream-walks into the facility where his real self is sleeping, confronts his captors and informs them that he didn't betray the Agency: he had other reasons for leaving. And then Two receives an ominous phone call.

One of the episode's recurring motifs is its inclusion of Two's red phone in the frame, often with him nervously eyeing it from the other corner. Watching the episode immediately after "The General," with its identical Number Two, reinforces a sense of narrative continuity. We've often seen a crestfallen Number Two at the end of each episode, since they frequently end with a stalemate rather than an outright defeat for Six (he's unable to escape, but Two is unable to break him). However, few Twos looked as broken up as Gordon's did at the end of "The General," watching a major technological triumph of the Village in smoking ruins (alongside the corpses of two employees) and realizing that his hubris was largely responsible for its destruction. So when we see Two receiving an ominous call on that red phone early on, the stakes seem very high. Gordon is also able to play the anxious, overwhelmed aspect of Number Two brilliantly, especially in the climactic moment when he sees his own image onscreen and realizes that Six is actually fully conscious in his slumbering state, playing them all for fools. This, along with lines like "I know I'm not indispensable," reminds us that this high-stakes game between him and Six cuts both ways. I suspect we won't be seeing any repeat appearances Gordon's Two now that he has been so thoroughly humiliated.

The appearance of a duplicate Two onscreen is also a sly callback (callforward? - depending on the viewing order) to "The Schizoid Man," implying that Six has the upper hand this time, controlling his own environment and forcing his opponents, rather than himself, to double and confront their own identity. Since the very first episode I have noticed the similarity of The Prisoner to the world of video games, and "A, B, and C" is one of the episode that most actively - if coincidentally - cultivates this analogy. What is this dream experiment if not a video game? Two and Fourteen have created a fabricated, familiar environment, capable of multiple variations and forking paths, in which the opposing "player," placed at a structural disadvantage, attempts to beat various "bosses," advance to the next level, and eventually unlock the mystery of the whole game. On both a conceptual and visual level - with the authorities operating controllers and issuing commands as they gaze at the obedient screen - the parallel is fascinating. This is one of the many ways in which, for all its brightly-colored sixties chic and clipped, straight-ahead televisual sense of presentation, The Prisoner feels almost more relevant today than it did in the sixties.

Aside from "The Chimes of Big Ben" and (arguably) "Arrival," this is also the episode that most clearly refers to an outside world, reminding us that the Village isn't just a microcosm. This is one of the elements that most intrigues me in terms of where the show is going. Will it get more specific in its final episodes, identifying the Cold War as an explicit point of reference? I'm inclined to believe it will go in a more metaphorical and/or metaphysical direction, but can't be sure yet. I don't think I would mind if it got specific, even at the risk of being dated, but I suspect when we reach the end it will be reaching out in many different directions simultaneously. I am also curious if Six's victories will grow from here or if this will be an aberration. I certainly can't think of another episode where he looks so triumphant, even if he is dreaming (is he aware of his victory, or is it occurring on a subconscious level)...and where Two looks so defeated. Cue that ringing phone.

Previous episode: The General
Next episode: Many Happy Returns


Doug Noakes said...

This is a great series. I'm very interested to see what you will make of the controversial final two episodes.

Joel Bocko said...

Good to hear from you, Doug! I'm really looking forward to those. With any luck I'll be watching them within a couple days though it depends when I finish the videos I'm working on.